Towards Chinatown

Faced with the possibility of losing of her mother, Melissa Hung contemplates another loss — of her mother tongue.

Melissa Hung | Longreads | August 2019 | 13 minutes (3,316 words)

Two days after I learn that my mother has cancer, after my sister tearfully tells me over the phone, “This might be mom’s last Christmas,” I go to San Francisco Chinatown.

I didn’t grow up in a Chinatown. It is not my home. Yet when I think of my mother in Texas, I feel pulled towards Chinatown’s tightly packed stores and no-frills restaurants.

So, leaving an appointment on a December afternoon, I board a bus heading east. The bus is an electric one, powered by cables strung above that guide it down a one-way street through a quiet residential neighborhood. Tidy three-story buildings line the route, their bay windows jutting out. When the bus crests over a hill, I catch a glimpse of San Francisco Bay between skyscrapers in the distance, a little over a mile away. The water shimmers like a mirage even though it is real.

Then, we rumble downhill and we’re in Chinatown. The bay windows are gone. Instead, laundry hangs out to dry on fire escapes and from clotheslines threaded across open windows. Children walk down streets holding the hands of their mothers. Older women dressed in purple and pink puffy jackets, sun hats, and sensible shoes tow hand trucks with bags strapped onto them. Elderly men in gray jackets and baseball caps wait at bus stops. Everyone seems to be carrying something: a backpack, a tote bag or two, a purse worn cross-body, a pink plastic bag in the crook of an elbow.

I step off the bus and walk to the Chinatown YMCA for a swim. Most of the pools I frequent are harshly chlorinated. Open your mouth while submerged in them, or worse, accidentally swallow the water, and you realize immediately your mistake. But here the pool is saltwater, soothing on the skin. As I swim freestyle down the middle lane, joy rises through my body like a buoy. This surprises me — that after two days of feeling terrified about losing my mother, I am capable of joy. I swim for 35 minutes, then listen in on the chatter of aunties in the locker room as I change. Technically, I am eavesdropping, but I don’t think of it that way. They are talking loudly enough for everyone to hear, the way my Po Po used to talk.

In Chinatown, I manage in my clumsy Cantonese. I speak the language and I don’t. My pronunciation is decent, but my vocabulary is stunted. Some words come easily. Others I grasp for. They exist just beyond my reach the way the details of a dream tease the waking mind.

With my hair still damp, I walk around the corner to a bakery with a yellow awning to buy a cha siu bao. I favor the baked ones with a glazed crisp exterior over the fluffy white steamed ones.

“Yāt go cha siu bao,” I say to the woman in an apron behind the counter. One pork bun.

“Baked,” I add.

I know the word for baked in Cantonese. Guhk. I’ll remember it later, but in the moment of the transaction, I can’t retrieve it quickly enough.

***

In a photo of my first grade class, boys outnumber girls two to one. The boys stand on the top two rows of the risers, their arms behind their backs. It is the early ’80s and it is all about the bowl cut. Nearly all of their blond- and brown-haired heads sport the style, rounded like straw mushrooms. Nine girls sit in the front row, our hands placed one on top of another in our laps. In a class of 25, there are three non-white people: two Latinas and me. I sit second from the right in a yellow sweater vest over a red sweatshirt and jeans. I also have a bowl cut and my black hair blends into the dark sweaters of the boys standing behind me. I am not smiling; my mouth is open a little as if I had thought about it but couldn’t manage. My mother must have forgotten it was school picture day. In my other class photos, I wear dresses and pink sneakers.

I didn’t grow up in a Chinatown. It is not my home. Yet when I think of my mother in Texas, I feel pulled towards Chinatown’s tightly packed stores and no-frills restaurants.

I am the eldest child of two immigrants from Hong Kong who met in Texas. Cantonese is my first language. Every day in school, a therapist pulls me out of class. She walks from classroom to classroom, collecting all the ESL students. We follow her down the hall to a windowless room where we learn English, copying her sounds and mouth shapes.

One time, we gather around a table to play Candy Land. There are five of us. But in Candy Land there are only four plastic gingerbread men: blue, red, green, yellow. Laahm, huhng, luhk, wohng. I am not quick enough. I do not get a gingerbread man. Instead, the therapist hands me a bottle of Wite-Out. I don’t yet know what irony is. I’m embarrassed about being the Wite-Out bottle. Even among the kids who are different, I feel singled out. This is the only memory of ESL that stays with me into adulthood.


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The point of the program is to make us English-proficient. There is never any discussion about bilingualism, how to learn and hold two languages equally at once. I attend ESL for about a year until I am deemed proficient.

At home, my mother sings Cantonese songs from her childhood to me. We speak mostly Cantonese and some English. We speak this way until my brother comes along. I am quiet. But as a toddler, he does not speak at all. He grunts or shrieks and points. My parents take him to a psychologist who counsels them to stick to one language. So when I am 8 or 9, we switch. My Cantonese freezes in time.

My English, though, my English accumulates rapidly from the library books I repeatedly check out. My English earns free personal pizzas from Pizza Hut’s reading program. My English wins a limerick contest at school sponsored by the Daughters of the American Revolution. I don’t know when it happens, if it happens gradually or all at once — I start thinking and dreaming entirely in English. My English soon surpasses my parents’.

In time, my English takes care of official correspondence. My mother hands me letters. What does this word mean? How do you pronounce this? She usually doesn’t like what it means — denied insurance claims or some entity charging us money unfairly — so she asks me to write for her. She dictates her logic in a mix of languages. I write it out for her on a legal pad, fixing the grammar and restructuring her sentences, and she copies it in her own hand.

Cantonese at home gets relegated to foods and to the Cantopop my parents play from cassettes. We repeatedly play one album that they picked up from a trip to Hong Kong. The songs by Michael Kwan (aka Kwan Ching-kit) are dramatic, soaring, the ballads punctuated by flourishes of strings and wind instruments. My siblings and I mimic the songs, though we don’t understand what we’re singing.

Today, I have enough Cantonese to get by. I can hand over the right amount of cash in a grocery or give the time to a stranger. I understand most of what’s said to me. But I can’t follow a news broadcast, can’t talk about politics or art.

What has been lost because Cantonese stopped making pathways in my brain as I was still growing? I fear that some fundamental part of me has been displaced, that my inability to speak fluently renders me incomplete. By losing my relationship to Cantonese, what have I lost in my relationship with my parents? Though they speak English, they think in Cantonese. Communication is hard enough in the same language.

***

All Chinatowns, though different, are fundamentally the same. The Chinatown in Houston, the city where I grew up, is a conglomerate of strip malls. It was a 30-minute drive from my family’s home. We went there for certain things: roast duck, dried mushrooms, fresh fish scooped from the tank and butchered before you. In Chinatown, we ate at a fast-casual place where we served ourselves hot tea from a large dispenser as we waited for our number to be called. In Chinatown, we ordered our birthday cakes, light and spongy, topped with fruit, and just the right amount of sweet. In Chinatown, my mother got her hair cut by a woman called Pony.

The Chinatown in San Francisco, the oldest one in North America, is a neighborhood of alleys, the buildings stacked close to one another. In the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake and fire, Chinatown merchants hired white architects to rebuild their buildings with pagodas, dragon motifs, and eaves curling skyward, a stage-set Chinatown to attract tourists and to protect the neighborhood against city leaders who had planned to seize its land.

The earthquake also destroyed the city’s municipal records, giving Chinese immigrants an opportunity to claim citizenship and skirt the Chinese Exclusion Act, leading to the rise of the paper sons system. By claiming more children back in China than actually existed, the enterprising could sell citizenship papers to others eager to come to America. My own family is here today because an ancestor from my mother’s village claimed he had been born on Stockton Street.

I don’t know any of this family history when I move to the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 2000s. I don’t know that in a Chinatown alley stands a modest building with my mother’s family name on it, home to our family association. I just know that I want to go to Chinatown.

I go to Chinatown for specific reasons — to swim in its saltwater pool, to buy dan tats or gai mei baos at the bakeries, to eat chicken wings at Capital restaurant, to get my hair trimmed. But I also like to wander the neighborhood with no particular destination. At about 24 square blocks, San Francisco Chinatown is not that big, but it is densely populated.

I often walk through Portsmouth Square, which takes up one square city block. In the daytime, elderly residents fill the park. Some of them practice tai chi, moving slowly and gracefully in unison. But most of them gather in small groups, sitting on benches, concrete ledges, and small plastic stools to play card games on makeshift tables. One day, I come across three musicians together: two men play wooden flutes while a third in a fedora and sport jacket plays the erhu, tenderly weaving his bow. It was here in Portsmouth Square in 1848 that Sam Brannan announced that gold had been discovered in the Sierras — setting off the Gold Rush and Chinese migration to California.

On sidewalks, I swerve around tourists strolling with their cameras out, and the bored women at intersections handing out flyers for lunch specials. I cut through alleys, blending in. In Chinatown, I don’t have to think about my Asian-ness because nearly everyone here is Asian.

I am the eldest child of two immigrants from Hong Kong who met in Texas. Cantonese is my first language. Every day in school, a therapist pulls me out of class.

I love the density of signs, both in Chinese characters and English letters, jutting out over storefronts, one right beside the next as far as I can see; many of them vertical like the spines of books. At night, lit up or traced in neon, they glow in a visual hum. I read them as an homage to the crowded neon signs of Hong Kong, where both my parents grew up after leaving their rural villages. Together, the signs seem to telegraph a collective homesickness.

I feel this longing too. How can I, though, when I’ve never lived in Hong Kong? Am I imagining the loneliness of my father, the only member of his family to immigrate to America? For years, he supported his mother and siblings back in Hong Kong while raising his own family. Am I imagining the yearning of my mother, left behind by her parents as a child as they headed towards America one by one? She was raised by a grandmother in a one-room apartment shared with an uncle who smoked indoors. Is this why she, a non-smoker, has lung cancer now?

“I’m not ready,” she sobs to me over the phone. “I need more time. Cutie is only two,” she says referring to my nephew. She never thought she’d have cancer. She keeps healthy habits: walking regularly, eschewing alcohol, buying organic produce, cooking meals that are ching ching déi — light and fresh. As she talks, she switches entirely into Cantonese. It is more Cantonese than she has spoken to me at once in years. That I can understand her feels like a blessing.

When I return to Houston for Christmas, I’m flummoxed by what to bring. We don’t know her treatment plan yet. What do you pack when your mother has cancer and you don’t know how long you’ll stay? An acquaintance suggests sweats, but I only pack one pair. I can borrow more. My mother and I are similarly sized. Out of her three children, I am the one who has her hands with the oval nail beds, her flat feet, her petite height, her shape. I know what kind of clothes look good on her because the same clothes look good on me. I have my mother’s body.

I have taken my mother’s body for granted, assumed it would stay as I have always known it — middle aged and strong, an immigrant body that endured and acclimated to the fact of its transplantation. One day you return home and your parents are noticeably older, their hair much grayer, their whole beings more fragile. On the last day of December, my sister and I take our mother to the cancer center. My mother’s body, wrapped in a thin hospital gown, we soon learn, harbors not one, but two cancers. I try to quiet my mind, confine my thoughts to the present, but it darts ahead. How can I understand being Chinese if my mother is gone? Who will I ask for the name of that dish we always ordered? When I want to know a detail about the village that we come from? When I recall a memory and seek confirmation of my own personal history?

***

On Kearny Street, catty corner from Portsmouth Square stands the Chinatown campus of City College of San Francisco, 14 floors of gleaming glass and steel. It opened in 2012 after decades of advocacy by the Chinese community. I wait in the admissions office one afternoon, a bank of empty cubicles before me. Eventually, a clerk — an auntie — walks into the room. She looks younger than my mom by about a decade.

“I need to get my student ID,” I say in English.

She looks at my Chinese face and replies in Cantonese. What is your student ID number? She searches the system, but can’t find me. My number is unusual, she says, asking more questions. I answer her like I would answer my mother, in a mix of Cantonese and English. Sometimes when I don’t know a word in Cantonese, I will say it in English but dress it with a Cantonese accent. I do this a lot in stores and restaurants to convey, I’m Cantonese too. Many times, wait staff seem unmoved. When they bring me the bill at the end of the meal, it is accompanied by fortune cookies wrapped in plastic, not the plate of orange slices my parents or other native speakers would receive. When this happens, I feel ashamed.

But the auntie here keeps speaking to me in Cantonese, and I feel like I belong. Eventually, she finds my record and takes my photo for the ID.

The semester is more than halfway over. I’ve been taking an intermediate Cantonese class. Every Saturday morning, we meet in a classroom at the main campus across town.

There are about 20 students, many like me who grew up with the language but can’t speak it fluently, others who married into Cantonese-speaking families, some native Mandarin-speakers who are learning their third language, and one older black man who tells me he lived in Chinatown when he was a child. A Chinese mom stops by the class one day to enroll her son, and the next week a sleepy-eyed teenager appears. After a few weeks, though, he drops out.

In Cantonese there is a term for people like him and me, Chinese born in Western countries: jook sing. A play on the word bamboo; we are hollow. But reading the news one day, I learn another term: receptive bilingual, or the more negative-sounding passive bilingual. It means someone who can understand a great deal of a language, but who doesn’t have enough command over it to speak it. I feel seen knowing there’s a term for me, that even though I exert effort to switch mouths, I am considered bilingual.

In class, we memorize dialogues in our textbook and perform them in pairs in front of the classroom. We ask our teacher, an auntie with short hair and glasses who has been teaching this class for decades, about words that are not in the book. When we study a unit on people’s appearances and familial relationships, the questions come quickly:

How do you say bald?

How do you say retired?

How do you say partner, like a romantic same-sex partner?

She writes the words in romanization on the white board. The class is conversational, so we’re not learning how to write, though she sometimes includes characters on the board too. She breaks words down into their components.

I may never truly understand what it is like to be separated from your family for so long, what it is like to give up your country, how this propels an immigrant pragmatism to do what you have to do.

Retired is tui jó yaū. Tui jó is the past tense of moving backwards. Yaū means rest.

Same-sex partner is tùhng buhn, literally: together companion.

I love the beautiful logic of the Chinese language, its inherent poetry. I find comfort in the guttural tones of Cantonese (six in all, though some people say nine.) Sometimes I wrestle with the tones in class, but if I don’t think too hard about them and relax, the sounds of my first language surface from within me. A subtle change in intonation makes all the difference. Máh mean horse. But màh means mother.

In between classes, I call my mother with questions. What does this word mean? How do you pronounce it?

“Do you feel sad that we don’t speak Cantonese?” I ask her one day. Especially my brother, who is the youngest. It’s unclear to me how much of it he even understands.

“No, not at all,” she says in English. “It was in order for him to survive in school. If he’s still not talking English, maybe it will be a problem and he will not make friends.”

I’m surprised — at how I mourn the loss of my mother tongue, but my mother does not. But then again, I may never truly understand what it is like to be separated from your family for so long, what it is like to give up your country, how this propels an immigrant pragmatism to do what you have to do. How my grandparents decided to leave my mother behind. How my parents gave me and my siblings English first names so that we might be bullied a little less.

In May, I asked my brother if he remembered the Michael Kwan songs we used to listen to. Yes, he said. In fact, he had digitized our worn cassette tape. It amuses him to play the album while driving to the Chinese grocery store in a Baltimore suburb, the dramatic soundtrack of our childhood now part of his mundane run for Chinese groceries. He sent me a link to download the MP3s. It had been years, perhaps decades, since I’d heard the songs. I played them loudly in my apartment, and though I didn’t know the words, I hummed along to all the melodies perfectly.

* * *

Melissa Hung writes about culture and immigration. Her work has appeared in NPR, Vogue, Pacific Standard, and Catapult. She is working on a collection of essays about chronic pain.

Editor: Sari Botton